Nov 17

Prague to Germany and the Black Forest

Driving from Prague to the Black Forest of Germany was a long day behind the wheel. We got up, did some writing, fast photo editing and had a bite to eat before leaving Prague. I loved Prague and wished we had more time to get to know the people and the place, so we added it to our return visit list. The highways in central Europe were really good and the traffic was light. The Czech Republic had a 130k/hr speed limit so when we crossed into Germany and the Autobahn, I put the petal to the metal and made time. Then the rain began and it was nice, then it hailed which was fun but not so nice, then it snowed. It snowed just a little but cleared up by the time we pulled into Nuremberg. There was a local camera shop we wanted to visit, we were hopeful it had what we were looking for and it did but it cost us an hour of time. Afternoon commute traffic in Germany was the same as anywhere else, slow and tedious. Even on the Autobahn.

Eventually we found our way free of the cities and traffic snarls. Rolling green hills came into view, mountains in the distance. The sun was setting giving the clouds a wonderful orange glow. The forest was near and this forest was different to any we had seen. We turned off onto a two lane road, hills became low mountains, the forest became denser and it began to snow again. We had reached the Black Forest. As we drove on in the dark I imagined all the fairytales of my childhood. I imagined the Brothers Grimm traveling through this very region collecting folklore and writing their stories. I got very excited on our dark and windy road.

Dusky Valley. Black Forest, Germany. 2017

The snow continued to fall and the temperature dropped below zero, the snow started to stick. It took a couple of tries but we made it to our lodgings and now there was two inches of snow on the ground. We were staying in a very traditional local hotel away from the tourist areas surrounded by woods and a stream. This wasn’t a small hotel, it had been there for over 300 years and kept up with the time times. But the staff still wore forest green uniforms with deer antler buttons. There were small themed restaurants, one with cuckoo clocks and another hunting themed with antlers adorning the walls.

Snowy River. Black Forest, Germany. 2017

By morning there was five inches of snow on the ground and we wanted to drive and explore. Christy wanted to see Strasbourg but the main route out of the valley was closed due to snow. We found an alternate route that would take us through Baden Baden but it was over a narrow windy mountain road. Along the way we stopped to take some landscape photos and just enjoy the fresh crisp air. The windy road hadn’t been cleared and at one point our car began to turn sideways on some black ice but I grew up driving on roads like these so it was no big deal other than giving us a few laughs and a whoops.

Baden Baden was not what either of us expected. It was a pretty village but it was dense with tourists and shops and closed roads and paid parking. At this point we had lost a lot of time due to weather and traffic and it was getting late. We decided to turn around, go back over the mountain, have some food and snuggle in for the night.

Two words about German food; meat and Potatoes. I like German food but I would not want to eat it all the time. It’s so hearty and tasty and calorie dense. I had eaten meat and potatoes for an early lunch, ten hours later I was still full and all I had otherwise consumed for the entire day was water. Still, we felt like we had to eat something so we sat down for a late dinner. I had a bowl of soup and some poultry. I probably should have stopped after the soup. That being said, German hospitality was absolutely wonderful and the countryside really was magical and beautiful.

Nov 17

Exploring Prague, Czech Republic

We had one full day in Prague both to explore the city and have fun. When I planned the European portion of our adventure I made sure that all our lodgings were within walking distance of the most important sights. In older European cities most of the activity swirls around the city center where there’s usually a public square, a church or cathedral, and a castle. In Prague the historic district straddles the Vitava River with a hilltop castle on one side and the vibrant city center with it’s town square, shops and neighborhoods on the other. The two sides were connected by a series of bridges, the most important being the 14th century Charles Bridge named after it’s builder, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.

Vitava River. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

We were staying on the castle side of the river and since we had spent our time in Budapest in the old hilltop castle district of Buda, we decided in Prague we would focus our attention on long walks through the city center. Setting out we wound our way through cobble stone streets and found ourselves in a beautiful neighborhood riverside park. Yellow fall leaves remained and added a splash of color to the lush palette of greens. As we walked a path along the Vitava we could see gothic spires in the distance and the many stone bridges fording the river.  We crossed over and found ourselves in the bustling city center with wide modern streets criss crossed by cobblestoned ones. (Cobblestones are hard on the feet so wear good walking shoes if you are not accustomed to them.)

The city center was large and would take several hours to explore. The first area we walked through was fairly modern with electric trolleys, large stores, smaller shops, back alleys, and bistros. Christy wanted to find the local camera pro shop, we had directions and a map but the maze of streets were still confusing. While studying the map, a man walked up to us and in perfect english said “are those Leicas?” No they’re not, we’re using Fuji’s  and a big Nikon DLSR. I showed him my little Xpro-2 and Christy her XT-2.

He introduced himself as Misha and we began talking. He had lived in the US for 40 years but returned to his native Prague because he objected to his tax dollars being used for US wars in the middle east. We talked some more and he insisted the camera store we were looking for was in an opposite direction than we had been told. He even asked us to walk with him over to another street and around the corner and pointed down an alley. Christy and I looked at each other. Then Misha smiled, said he had to catch a trolley, kissed our hands and hurried away.

Cyclist. Prague, Czech Republic. 2016

We did explore the alley, just a little, then walked into a shop and asked questions. There was no camera shop in that neighborhood. Returning to the map we went back to way we had been headed and after several minutes found the correct shop. Unfortunately they didn’t have what we were looking for but I did see some great books including several by and about Josef Koudelka who had witnessed and photographed the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

We continued to criss cross and explore the city center and worked our way over to a little Italian restaurant that had been recommended to us for lunch. It was cold so I ordered Minestrone soup and a salad. Christy had ravioli. The soup was light, warm and wonderful, just what was needed. We took the opportunity to rest our feet for a few minutes and I pulled out my journal to write for a bit. Happy and warm we ventured back outside. There was a torture museum nearby with a mannequin in a torture device in the window. Christy wanted to go in, I refused. I had made the mistake of going through a torture museum in London several years ago and I will never do it again. Man’s inhumanity to man has been horrific and grotesque, I wanted no part of it.

Christmas Market. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

Have I mentioned that cobblestones are hard on the feet? They are. We walked and walked and some more. They city was beautiful and soot covered bits of ancient gothic architecture would poke out at various locations reminding me of its long history. As we headed back toward the river we found the town square and the Christmas market had begun. Food stands selling local treats, meats and hot wine were thronging with people. The hot wine looked and smelled so good! Christmas Markets are one of my favorite things about Europe this time of year.

Charles Bridge. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

We crossed back over the Vtiava, this time on the Charles Bridge. The Charles was a beautiful gothic stone bridge, probably the most beautiful I’ve seen. There were several religious statues lining the bridge, one in particular with panels rubbed smooth by centuries of devotees.

It wasn’t far back to our lodgings and we found ourselves doubling back through the pretty little park we had passed through in the morning. It hadn’t lost any of it’s charm.

John Lennon Wall. Prague, Czech Republic. 2017

I think Prague may have become my favorite new European city, excluding Venice which is a world unto itself.

Nov 17

Langos and Driving from Budapest to Prague

Budapest was beautiful and interesting, and the river views from the hills of Buda were spectacular. We had a nice breakfast at the hotel. I sat and wrote in my Traveler’s Notebook and made a drawing using the handle of my fork as a stylus and my cup of coffee as ink. Drawing in my journal with coffee has been a funny little ritual I began a few years ago as a way to capture my time in a new place.

Speaking of food, Christy had to have real Hungarian langos. Langos is a street food, deep fried bread traditionally topped with sour cream and cheese. There was a shop that sold langos not far away, about a kilometer or so. It was time for us to check out anyway so we gathered up our things, hopped in the car and drove to the store. The directions seemed easy and in hindsight they were but driving in traffic when you don’t speak the language can sometimes be nerve wracking and you tend to second guess yourself. It wasn’t too hard but we managed to find the store and thankfully there was a parking lot next door, it was a paid indoor garage. The garage was kind of cool because it had a car wash on one side, a tire shop on another and seemingly more shops the further and deeper you went. Picking a spot not far from the entrance we hopped out and headed up the ramp toward the sunlight coming in from the street above. A man walked out a doorway to my left and started talking to me in Hungarian. I replied “I’m sorry I don’t understand” to which he started walking toward me gesturing in different directions and talking more earnestly. To this I smiled, nodded my head and said “yes it is a lovely day isn’t it” and headed for the exit.

Butcher. Budapest, Hungary.2017

The shopping center turned out to be a grocery store of sorts, with three levels of small outdoor shops, each selling meats or fruits or vegetables with the locals strolling through buying their supplies for the week. I’ve been to outdoor markets all over the world and they range from horrible and frightening to homey and clean. I’ll never forget the platter of roasted rats in Laos. This market was neat and well kept, clearly falling into the homey and clean category. That’s something I noticed about Budapest in general, for a historic city, it was very clean. We walked up three levels and found the Langos vendor, success! Wandering back toward the parking lot I was a little nervous I might run into my new friend but he was nowhere to be seen.

Getting out of Budapest by car on a weekday morning was a traffic nightmare. We made a few wrong turns and it felt like we were stuck in a labyrinth, nearly an hour later we finally emerged onto the highway and plotted a course for Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava was on the way to Prague and would allow us to check another country off our list, and it was beautiful to drive through.

The countryside in this part of Europe was rolling hills and fertile farmland, you didn’t see many towns or houses, at least not from the highway but there were many signs for historic places to visit along the way. Ordinarily I would have loved nothing more than to stop and explore but it was such a long travel day we just kept moving.

As we got closer to Bratislava, we could see boxy rectangular buildings stacked up in the distance. We’d seen these before, the concrete high density housing known as “Stalins”. You read that right, “Stalins.” These buildings were named after the Soviet Dictator because he was the one that promoted their construction for the proletariat all across the USSR. We had learned about them in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks were resentful of these buildings and considered them blight. We weren’t surprised to see “Stalins” in former Czechoslovakia but were happy to see the construction of newer more beautiful buildings going up around them.

The rest of the drive to Prague was even more beautiful with rolling hills, pine forests, and cool crisp clean air. Prague itself was a revelation, with Onion domes and old world charm.

Nov 17

Around the World Part 3, The Grand Adventure

We’re off on our next Grand Adventure. The trip to the airport was uneventful. Along the way we stopped and picked up a new lens, a Fuji 50-140, about a 70-200 equivalent on full frame. More on the Fuji system later.

The first leg of our journey had us flying to Frankfurt, Germany. Our plane was new and beautiful, one of the Untied 777 Polaris jets. I learned that United has retired it’s 747’s and there was a cute little memento celebrating and remembering the 747. The crew was friendly and accommodating. The flight passed quickly and I managed to get a few hours of sleep. I watched a documentary film on the life of the great Toshiro Mifune. It was narrated by Keeanu Reeves, and quite good.

Bistro. Budapest, Hungary. 2017

Next we flew to Vienna and rented a car for our drive to Budapest where we’re spending our first two days. I’d downloaded a copy of the “Grand Budapest Hotel” by Wes Anderson to celebrate, just like I watched his “Darjeeling Limited” on our way to India last year, I’ve seen all his films before but they are brilliant, entertain and get me in the mood, One of my photography mentors had all the Wes Anderson films on his iPhone. When we were sitting around at lunch or just hanging out he would pull out his phone and scroll to a scene then wax poetic about it’s beauty, complexity and symmetry, such a great experience.

TukTuks. Budapest, Hungary. 2017

The drive from Vienna to Budapest wasn’t too bad. I like driving in Europe as the drivers seem much more “with it” than drivers in the US I don’t know why, maybe it’s because they seem to have fewer distractions and driving seems less like a chore. There was no traffic and we had a “never lost” so it was easy, and after leaving the Vienna airport only one main highway and here we are. It was kind of funny, we had to buy road stickers, kind of like local tax certificates to drive in Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic was easy since we were able to buy it when we picked up our car, the sticker for Hungary had to be bought at a gas station on or near the Hungarian border. We kept our eyes peeled for the Hungarian border, guessing where it might be. We weren’t sure what to look for since most of our long distance overland travel tended to be by train, and that’s easy, you just give your passport to the conductor, kick back and relax.

River Danube. Budapest, Hungary. 2017

So what does the Austro Hungarian border look like? It looks like a truck stop with a dozen little shops lined up selling paprika, and the surface of the road changed from smooth blacktop to something rough and bumpy for the first kilometer or so, then back to a nicely paved road. Crossing the border we found a gas station, purchased our sticker and continued on our way. As we approached Budapest, the “never lost” did a great job of keeping us on the right path. There’s always the fear that the computer will take you the wrong way and you’ll end up lost. Not this time. I was so happy to see the Danube and the bridges as we wound our way through town.

Danube at Night. Budapest, Hungary. 2017

What is the goal of the European portion of our trip? First and foremost we want to have fun and continue our exploration of this part of the world, for myself I’m excited to see the cities in a historical context and continue putting the pieces to gather, I’m a student of western civilization and I want to understand more, the long view and context, that’s my thing. Christy loves to explore, be curious and enjoy new experiences and food, and she’s always doing research for her grand science fiction novels.

Nov 17

Blue Boat and the Call to Adventure

Blue Boat, Morocco. 2015

It’s that time. The call of the wind and the waves and the sea, the call to adventure.

Nov 17

Grey Whale Encounter, Monterey Bay

A few years ago from the archives. I’d forgotten about this until I came across the original video while reviewing my catalog. All I had with me was a small point and shoot. The best camera is the one you have with you!

Out on a sail boat with some friends in Monterey Bay. A beautiful visitor came over to say hello. Grey and Humpback whales frequent the area but encounters like this, where the whale playfully bumps the boat are extremely rare. Winter in Monterey Bay is prime whale watching season.